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Why Do Victims Get Stuck In Anger?

Why Do Victims Get Stuck In Anger?

by Dr. Irene

"Real happiness is cheap enough, yet how dearly we pay for its
counterfeit."  - Hosea Ballou

March 28, 2000

A reader sent the following email. I thought the question was good enough to turn into an article:

Dear Dr. Irene:

"I just have one question short and sweet.  I have been on this site for several months now. I have noticed  with most of the women on the board (myself included) that victims go through the stages of recovery and get STUCK in the "anger stage".  We know something is wrong, we learn about it and want to make a change, but for some reason we sit here and somehow can not "practice what we preach".  Please tell me why we do this and how can we can move forward.  Is it fear, habit, ignorance or do we still after finding the truth that we still deep down deserve to be treated like this?  Thanking you in advance for any help you may have to offer. Sincerely, Kate


Anger is an Emotion

Like love and fear, anger is simply an emotion. When we pay attention to our internal signals, anger tells us something is not OK with us and needs our attention. Anger is healthy. Anger provides a necessary signal we need to take care of ourselves.

When anger is used appropriately, it keeps us from getting into situations that can become toxic if allowed to advance. One of the stories I tell my clients took place some years ago when I worked at a drug and alcohol rehab. After group therapy, one of the residents complimented me on my legs. I suppose he expected that I would be flattered. Instead, I replied that his behavior towards his doctor was inappropriate. He apologized and was never disrespectful again.

Had I been lax in my professionalism, I might have smiled and thanked him for the compliment - thereby opening myself up to escalated sexual innuendo in the future, since my "approval" would have likely constituted "permission" in this person's eyes.  Calling him on crossing my boundaries prompted me to act in time and nip a potential problem in the bud.

The first question my clients have is why am I calling annoyance "anger?" Because annoyance or irritation or any feeling along those lines can easily escalate into anger. The goal is to become aware of anger as early in the sequence of events as possible, while it is still very, very mild.

Why Do Victims Get Stuck In Anger?

There are two roadblocks victims typically face with regard to anger:

bulletThey are unaware of their anger
bulletThey lack the skills to handle anger

Codependent individuals are excellent at being angry when they shouldn't be, and not being angry when they should be! After all, they have a stake in denying their anger, especially when their anger is directed towards the person upon whom they depend for self-esteem supplies. Therefore, denial gets in the way of awareness.

Once things have gone too far and the victim begins to wake up, they are faced with piled up, pent-up anger. This anger may have been "stored" for years with no real outlet. Double Oppps! We're talking rage!

Victims are in need of validation at this stage. They need to mull it over with others who know what they are talking about. This makes it very real. Unfortunately, it's really easy to get stuck here since validation and agreement feel really good.  Vindication at last!

Codependents don't get stuck here because they choose to. They don't know any better. Codependents  lack the skills with which to effectively and efficiently handle their anger. They were never taught to handle anger well!

What's A Recovering Victim To Do?

Remember, anger is an adaptive response that signals the individual that something is amiss and needs their attention. This requires a skillful, effective, assertive response you need to learn!  Books like Elgin's You Can't Say That To Me!  Baer's How to Be an Assertive (and Not Aggressive Woman in Life, Love, and on the Job: The Total Guide To Self-Assertiveness) Woman and

Parenthetically, the "cognitive" skills I refer to include blocks many victims fall prey to - such as irrational guilt. Guilt and shame can block the appropriate handling of anger.

Sometimes an individual can get in touch with their anger, but can't seem to drop it despite the necessary period of cathartic validation. This tends to occur in individuals who while dealing with anger from the past, are not dealing with their anger today - in their day to day life. Once these individuals identify and stop others from taking advantage or imposing on their boundaries, the anger usually drops away.

Anger management skills give the recovering victim the personal power to do something about their anger, so they don't have to get stuck in the semblance of power validation and blame offer.

For the Abuser Too!

The same set of cognitive and verbal skills are necessary for the abuser as well. This individual is also in denial of their anger signals! As an example, road rage is more often about feeling slighted by a significant other than it is about a "need" for excitement or anything else.  

The major difference between anger management for abusers and for codependent victims is a greater emphasis on impulse control skills (i.e., walk away, exercise, when calm think about it) for abusers than for victims. However, there are victims who need impulse control skills as badly as abusers!

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